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10 Most Influential Sport Compacts of the '90s

How the age of the GS-R, 240SX, 2.5RS, and others set the pace in the US for generations to follow

Aaron Bonk
Aug 10, 2015

No decade better set the pace for today's sport-compact-car and import-performance landscape than the 1990s. Nearly every automaker offered something for those of us who cared about going fast but didn't have the money to make it happen. Some did so better than others, the following of which laid the groundwork for the sort of performance-minded cars we take for granted today.

Warning: Before you get your Underoos all knotted up because your '91 Ford Probe GL didn't make the cut, know that there are all sorts of more important things for you to worry about, and that maybe the '91 Probe GL just wasn't all that good of a car to begin with. We've also purposefully left out groundbreaking cars like the Mazda RX-7, Toyota Supra, and Acura NSX because, well, they aren't sport compacts. You won't find anything like the Honda S2000 on this list either, which debuted at the tail-end of 1999 and spent most of its existence in the current century, or the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution and Subaru WRX, which weren't available in these here United States until the '90s were long gone.

1994-2001 Acura Integra GS-R

1991 2001 acura integra gs r Photo 2/41   |   1991 2001 Acura Integra Gs R

You think the Type R ought to be on this list, but you're forgetting Acura's top-of-the-line Integra did very little to shape today's sport compact performance scene. Everything that made the Type R the special car it is was something the aftermarket had already done better, and those looking to go faster would yank off anyways. In the '90s, the GS-R was the epitome of sport compact performance, with its famed double-wishbone suspension, its DOHC VTEC engine that laid down 170 hp, and its close-ratio gearbox. More than two decades later, the GS-R's B18C1 engine is the basis for almost every 1,000-plus-hp Honda drag car.

1990-1994 Mitsubishi Eclipse GSX

1990 1994 mitsubishi eclipse gsx Photo 6/41   |   1990 1994 Mitsubishi Eclipse Gsx

Factory turbocharged with a nearly indestructible cast-iron short-block and an all-wheel-drive architecture, the first-generation GSX was the precursor to North Americans getting acquainted with the EVO. It was also among the first small imports to receive a whole lot of aftermarket support, carving out its own performance niche that created heated rivalries between itself and cars like the Civic and Integra throughout the decade. Unlike the EVO, the Eclipse was known for its straight-line performance traits and popularity on the dragstrip, but like the EVO the factory's 195 hp can be doubled relatively easily and with little funds.

1995-1998 Nissan 240SX

1995 1998 nissan 240sx Photo 10/41   |   1995 1998 Nissan 240Sx

The 240SX delivered what few sport compact performers of the 1990s would: a rear-wheel-drive layout but with a multi-link rear suspension unlike almost every other rear-wheel-drive car of its time. The 240 wasn't so much identified by its almost somber KA24DE truck engine as it was by its ability to host the more powerful and already turbocharged SR20DET. Here, the original 155hp engine's been tossed on more than one occasion, making way for Japanese-bred SR derivatives that are second only in sport compact engine swap popularity to Honda's B-series lineup. Today, the 240SX lives on as a sought-after chassis for drifters and road racers alike.

1991-1995 Toyota MR2 Turbo

1991 1995 toyota mr2 turbo Photo 14/41   |   1991 1995 Toyota Mr2 Turbo

No place else during the '90s would you find a mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive sports car for less than $25,000. The second-generation MR2 with its 200hp and 200 lb-ft of torque turbocharged engine set the stage for Toyota's most important sports car to date-the Supra-but at a fraction of the price. Its aesthetics, which almost pay homage to Ferrari's 348, keep the MR2 relevant almost two-and-a-half decades later, as does its impressive handling characteristics and whip-snapping rear end.

1992-1995 Honda Civic

1992 1995 honda civic Photo 18/41   |   1992 1995 Honda Civic

If it weren't for Honda's fifth-generation Civic hatchback, the world of modifying sport compacts as we know it wouldn't be. The Civic introduced a whole new generation to the high-performance culture and served as the impetus for automakers like Subaru and Mitsubishi to deliver their already successful WRX and EVO platforms to the U.S. Nobody ever said the Civic was impressive underneath its hood, but its ability to swap parts with cars like the Integra and Prelude made it one of the most popular small cars in automotive history. It's also served as the benchmark chassis for dozens of sport compact drag racing records for more than two decades.

1990-1997 Mazda Miata

1990 1997 mazda miata Photo 22/41   |   1990 1997 Mazda Miata

Few sport compacts are as polarizing as the Miata, despite the fact that Mazda's roadster has proven itself as one of the most track-capable production cars to date. Looking at its diminutive shape wouldn't lead you to that same conclusion, nor would all 116 hp worth of its twin-cam engine, but one of the most impressive double-wishbone suspensions, its snickety shifter, four-wheel disc brakes, and instinctive steering inputs should. The Miata won't win you a drag race either - it was never supposed to. But there's perhaps no other car in history begging to be driven on the road course and with nary the concession.

1988-1991 Honda CRX

1988 1991 honda crx Photo 26/41   |   1988 1991 Honda Crx

You can dislike Honda all you want, but there's no denying the impact the CRX had on the world of small-car performance. The first-generation model appealed to just about anybody who understood the whole concept of power-to-weight ratios, and the second-generation iterations, released for the 1988 model year, appealed to just about everyone else. Twenty-seven years later and modern cues can still be seen in the hatchback's lines and large glass expanse. Like other Civics, the CRX featured the same sort of double-wishbone suspension and parts interchangeability with the Integra that would further contribute to its success and it being used to break records in multiple motorsports realms.

1998-2001 Subaru Impreza 2.5RS

1998 2001 subaru impreza rs Photo 30/41   |   1998 2001 Subaru Impreza Rs

Before Americans were blessed with the WRX, there was the Impreza 2.5RS. The 2.5RS wasn't turbocharged, and it didn't matter. Released alongside Subaru's World Rally Championship successes of the mid-'90s, the 2.5RS featured a 165hp, 2.5L engine, a stiffer suspension when compared to other Imprezas, 16-inch rims, and a hood scoop that didn't do a whole lot. Still, this was the closest Americans were gonna get to the WRX the rest of the world already knew, and its sales arguably sent the message to Subaru that the U.S. was primed and ready for the turbocharged, race-derived version.

1990-1993 Toyota Celica All-Trac Turbo

1990 1993 toyota celica all trac turbo Photo 34/41   |   1990 1993 Toyota Celica All Trac Turbo

It's the Celica you never knew existed and that you'll have trouble finding now that you want one. By today's standards, its 2.0L, 200hp, turbocharged engine isn't much to brag about, but in 1989 when it was released, that was five more than the almighty Eclipse was bestowed with and 60 more than any pre-VTEC Integra. The All-Trac, of course, also featured an all-wheel-drive layout that, along with the Eclipse, set a precedent for just how popular that configuration would later become.

1991-1994 Nissan Sentra SE-R

1991 1994 nissan sentra se r Photo 38/41   |   1991 1994 Nissan Sentra Se R

Front-wheel-drive Nissan fans of the early '90s didn't have a whole lot to choose from until the SE-R came along. Like the Integra, it featured a 140hp engine (30 hp more than standard trims), four-wheel disc brakes, and an independent suspension. Unlike the Integra, though, the third-generation Sentra retained its box-like '80s look until the fourth-generation model was introduced, which bode well for purists who were accustomed to the small Nissan's squared-up lines.

By Aaron Bonk
405 Articles

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